Recalling a jazz great from Chuckatuck

Published 9:07 pm Wednesday, January 29, 2014

By Frank Roberts

They walked to the school in Chuckatuck hand-in-hand — the diminutive Ruby Bowden and Charlie Byrd, the lad who eventually became one of the world’s most important, most respected guitarists.

It was in the ’30s. The two went through elementary and high school together in that one building, graduating in 1934. During the high school years he performed for dances.

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Byrd and Bowden shared conversation and respect, “and we played together,” she said.

“He was always such a nice person,” said the lady who later became Mrs. Bateman and the mother of two sons. “Everybody liked him.”

Especially jazz musicians and fans with good taste. He is best remembered for his collaboration with Stan Getz, for bringing the Brazilian bossa nova to the U.S., and for bringing class and good taste to the worlds of Latin jazz, and swing.

His father, N.H. Byrd, introduced Charlie Byrd and his four brothers to music. He ran a large general store, conveniently located across the street from the school. It was a meet-and-greet place for local musicians.

“After the store closed for the day, he would teach music to his sons,” said Bateman.

In addition to his storekeeping duties, N.H. Byrd also served as sheriff of Chuckatuck.

Musically, he was a mandolinist and guitarist. He taught his future jazz great son how to play the acoustic steel guitar. All of his sons took lessons, but only Charlie and Joe, a bass player, became professional musicians.

The other siblings were Norman, Oscar, and Jack. More about Joe Byrd next week.

“Norman had a beautiful voice,” said Bateman who lives in Hertford, N. C. “He sang at my wedding, and I remember he sang, ‘I Love You Truly.’”

The Byrds and the Bowdens attended Oakland Christian Church. Later, Charlie Byrd attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute, playing in the school orchestra until the draft got his number.

An Army infantryman, he saw combat in Europe. When things quieted down, he played in an Army Special Services band.

Then, it was back to school. He studied music composition and jazz theory at the Harnett Music School in New York City and then moved to Washington, D.C., to study classical guitar, later studying under one of the world’s most respected classical guitarists, Andres Segovia, but jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a three-fingered French picker, was his greatest influence.

In D.C., Byrd played several clubs, later joining one of the swing era’s most important bands, the Woody Herman Orchestra. That must have been an enjoyable gig. I met the bandleader during a concert in Pennsylvania, chalking him up as a Mr. Nice Guy.

Later, the Chuckatuck guitarist followed in his father’s footsteps, teaching children in D.C. When Brazilian music turned him on, his life changed. In ’61 he participated in a diplomatic tour of Brazil and became part of that country’s bossa nova scene, headed by Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Byrd loved Brazil, and Brazil loved him. He was knighted by the government as a Knight of the Rio Branco.

But a fellow American musician meant the most to him. Byrd and Stan Getz’s recordings and concerts met with high critical acclaim and great public appreciation.

The young ‘Chuckatuckian’ toured the world, had a D. C. supper club, Charlie’s, named in his honor, had some recipes featured in “Jazz Cooks” and authored “Charlie Byrd’s Melodic Method for Guitar.”

He played Brazilian music, American jazz and swing, the blues, and classical music, and he made more than 100 albums. One writer noted, “It was said he could play a Bach cantata with the same ease as a Gershwin song.”

Byrd loved sailing and owned a 26-foot craft called “I’m Hip.” One of the world’s greatest guitarists, the ‘nice guy’ from Chuckatuck, died in 1999 at his home in Annapolis.